Sen. wants to scrap Tulane legislative scholarships

Amid new controversy surrounding the Tulane legislative scholarship program, a state senator from Baton Rouge said Tuesday he will propose legislation to scrap the program, which allows each of Louisiana’s 144 lawmakers to award a one-year scholarship worth an estimated $43,150 to the private university each year.

If that gambit fails, as state Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, expects it will, Claitor said he’ll push for the scholarships to come with a requirement that recipients perform some form of public service in Louisiana after graduation.

And if he can’t get that passed, Claitor said he’ll fight for more transparency around the program — which dates to the 1880s, when the then-public University of Louisiana was privatized into Tulane.

As part of a grand bargain, the state and city agreed to waive many of Tulane’s tax obligations, including all sales taxes, while Tulane promised to allow each member of the Legislature and the mayor of New Orleans to dole out scholarships each year. The university has said the scholarships cost Tulane more than the tax breaks save it, to the tune of at least a couple of million dollars each year.

“Regardless of whether it’s hard or impossible, I want to go ahead and make a run at it anyway and see if we can eliminate this deal,” Claitor said. “I want the legislators not to award Tulane scholarships, and I want Tulane to pay the (sales and property) tax that was waived.

“It’s very hard to unpack a deal that ancient,” he said. “If I can’t untie it, my goal is to make it more transparent and tighten the rules up. And I want to make it have an element of service to it.”

Claitor said he is still mulling over how a service requirement would work, but he believes the academies associated with the various branches of the U.S. military could provide a model.

Those schools do not charge tuition but require service in the armed forces.

“My father, for example, went to the U.S. Naval Academy, and in exchange for the education he got, he gave the United States six years of his life,” Claitor said.

“I’m still trying out how I could make this a reasonable and fair exchange on behalf of Louisiana. In my view, these are Louisiana citizen dollars, not my dollars, and I’d like to see some return for the state of Louisiana.”

Claitor made his comments a day after The New Orleans Advocate and WWL-TV published a story about the Legislature’s refusal to make public hundreds of documents that show which legislators have awarded scholarships to relatives of fellow politicians.

The program doesn’t bar politicians’ relatives from getting the scholarships, but all students who receive the scholarships must fill out a one-page form that requires them to disclose whether they are related to an elected official.

Historically, the program tended to benefit children of legislators and other insiders, with some lawmakers even awarding scholarships to themselves.

The excesses of the program were exposed in the mid-1990s, and new rules were passed, including one barring legislators from giving scholarships to immediate family members, but not to relatives of other politicians.

That practice still continues.

A joint investigation by the New Orleans Advocate and WWL-TV found, for instance, that state Rep. Harold Ritchie, D-Bogalusa, has given his scholarship for the past two years to a son of St. Tammany Parish District Attorney Walter Reed — and that before that, Ritchie gave it to the daughter of a member of the Washington Parish Council. It’s unclear how often the awards go to politicians’ relatives.

In other cases, scholarships have benefited connected insiders who aren’t related to politicians but who have close ties to them. For instance, state Rep. Helena Moreno has awarded a scholarship for the past two years to Collin Buisson, the son of her longtime consultant, Greg Buisson.

Both Moreno and Ritchie have said that the students they’ve chosen for the award are outstanding.

To be eligible for a legislative scholarship, students must finish in the top 25 percent of their high school class and have a composite ACT score of at least 28.

Still, Claitor said, “When you’re giving your scholarship to the campaign manager’s kid, that doesn’t pass the smell test. When you’re giving it to the DA’s kid, that doesn’t pass the smell test. And I think everyone knows what I mean by that.”

To avoid any allegation of favoritism, Claitor said he gives his scholarship to the applicant in his district with the highest combined grade-point average and ACT score.

Claitor said he spoke to state Sen. Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, about putting the Tulane scholarship program on the agenda of the committee’s next meeting, and Appel agreed.

Appel confirmed that Tuesday, adding only that he will need an OK from state Rep. Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge, because the next meeting will be a joint session with the House Education Committee, which Carter chairs. Carter did not return a call late Tuesday.

Appel said he generally agrees with Claitor that the Tulane program should be scrapped.

“I think clearly there is at least the perception of problems,” he said. “Certainly it doesn’t hurt to air it out and look at it. I think we should probably just get rid of the silly thing and get the taxes from Tulane. It’s more trouble than it’s worth.”